Americans United is joining in the campaign to celebrate Public Schools Week for many reasons – to honor the important role that public schools play in our communities, to stand up for and defend public schools as places where all students should be welcome and as a way to commemorate AU’s history. Americans United was founded over 70 years ago to defend religious freedom by fighting back against laws that would send taxpayer funds to private, religious schools. That history was and continues to be central to AU’s work today.
We’re still continuing that fight against private school voucher schemes in 2018 – in state legislatures, in Congress and the Trump administration and in the courts.
Private school vouchers are harmful for many reasons: They undermine public education, strip civil rights protections from students and violate the fundamental principle of religious freedom. Vouchers divert taxpayer dollars from public schools, which serve 90 percent of our children, and send that money to private, mostly religious schools. Parents certainly may choose such an education for their children, but no taxpayer should be required to pay for another’s religious education.
Across the states, we’ve tracked voucher bills in 32 state legislatures this legislative session. These bills have taken various forms, including traditional vouchers, tuition tax credits and education savings accounts (ESAs). But no matter what form these bill take, the result is the same: They send public dollars to private schools, and AU opposes these bills.
We have opposed, for example, a bill that New Hampshire is currently considering to create an ESA program and another bill in North Carolina that was added last minute to a larger education bill to expand the state’s existing ESA program. We also strongly opposed a bill in Florida, which was recently signed into law. This bill puts a new spin on vouchers – in addition to expanding the state’s current tuition tax credit program, it also creates an entirely new voucher program specifically for students who have been bullied. Uprooting and sending away students who have been the victims of bullying and harassment to private schools that do not have to follow the same anti-bullying protections as public schools is an especially bad idea.
At the federal level, the Trump administration has been pushing for new and expanded private school voucher programs since before the president officially took office. This year, the White House’s proposed budget requested $1 billion for the creation and expansion of private school vouchers. Meanwhile in Congress, members of the House and Senate have introduced a bill that would create a new voucher program for military-connected students by draining funds from Impact Aid, a much-needed and targeted source of funding upon which public schools serving military-connected students heavily rely. AU, along with the groups representing military families and the schools serving these military-connected students, oppose this proposal.
In states where voucher schemes have been approved, AU has an extensive history of fighting them in court. About 39 state constitutions have no-aid provisions that protect the freedom of conscience of taxpayers by prohibiting public funds from being used to fund religion, including religious education. That was the basis for a favorable Colorado Supreme Court ruling in a case we successfully concluded earlier this year over a proposed voucher program in Douglas County.
AU also recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief (which was joined by allied groups) in support of Montana’s Department of Revenue, which blocked religious schools from participating in a tax-credit voucher program because the program would have otherwise violated Montana’s constitution. That case, Espinoza v. Montana DOR, was brought by parents who want taxpayers to pay for their children’s religious education; it is scheduled to be argued April 6 before Montana’s Supreme Court.
Last year marked the end of another case that AU brought with allies to challenge an ESA voucher program in Nevada. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in AU’s favor in a pair of cases (AU was involved in only one of them), concluding that the ESA program violated state constitutional provisions requiring public funds appropriated for public schools to be spent on public schools alone.
AU will continue the fight to ensure that public funds are used for public schools and that taxpayers aren’t compelled to fund religious instruction. To learn more about our work, join AU Executive Director Rachel Laser at 2:30 p.m. EDT Friday, March 16, for a Facebook Live discussion with other AU staff members about how we’re supporting public schools.